James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Only mugs urge a football club to gamble

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Football, when it isn’t trying to spin some positive publicity or cosy up to fans, likes to describe itself as a business.

Which, even with my rudimentary grasp of mathematics, seems pretty laughable when you flick through most clubs’ accounts.

After all, if Warren Buffett or George Soros lost money at the same rate as, say, Bolton Wanderers, they would not be regarded as the greatest investors in the world. Wasteful idiots perhaps. But financial experts? No.

The plight of Wanderers, who by their own admission are leaking around £11m a year, acts as a reminder about the danger of gambling on transfers in the belief your bet will come in. Sam Allardyce used his autobiography to bemoan their failure to “spend some money” when, during his tenure at the Macron Stadium, Champions League qualification appeared in reach. Phil Parkinson and co-owner Ken Anderson, the men now charged with steering Wanderers away from the precipice, must have read those words with a wry, sardonic smile. (Nevertheless, even though I wish them no ill will whatsoever, it’s still bemusing how a team bleeding so much cash is allowed to sign new players. Settle your debts, preferably in full, first).

United, who host Wanderers at Bramall Lane tomorrow, have proven pretty adept at wasting money themselves since slipping into the third tier. Albeit, thankfully, with considerably less success than their latest opponents.

If they do win tomorrow, and it remains a huge ‘if’ given the talent at Parkinson’s disposal, then United’s lead over third-place could stretch to 10 points. Manager Chris Wilder would doubtless remind there are still plenty of games to be played. But, even though promotion would not be assured, gaps like that are psychologically significant.

And this is where United’s approach towards recruitment this season, where suitability has taken precedence over big ‘statement’ deals, could pay dividends.

Championship football, where many clubs receive parachute payments of up to £87m spread over three years, is now a hard slog for clubs coming up from League One. Forget, almost certainly, about competing for the play-offs after a season. It will probably take three to get comfortable on the gravy train.

Make no mistake, the days of Norwich City and Southampton blazing a trail through the divisions are long gone. AFC Bournemouth? Maxim Demin’s chequebook will confirm that was no fairytale.

But, if they do go up at the sixth time of asking, then United can compete providing they are intelligent when it comes to squad-building. Better to rely on finding a niche than trying to keep up with the Joneses. Bolton will explain why.